Sermon given at Matins on Second Sunday of Epiphany, Sunday 17 January 2010: God and Science

17 January 2010 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence

God and Science

In this series of Matins addresses in January I have been looking at what we can realistically believe about God, and this morning I want to look at the often complex and confused picture of how at various times science has had its effect on thoughts about God.

There have, of course, been times when there seems to have been a clear conflict between the work of scientists and the view of the church. The Catholic Church’s opposition to Galileo’s suggestion that the earth revolved around the sun is an obvious example, as is the contemporary conflict, far greater in America than in this country, between those who support and develop the work of Charles Darwin, and modern creationists, who oppose any notion of evolution, or their intellectual relatives, the advocates of what is called intelligent design. Of course today almost all men and women of science will confirm that both Galileo and Darwin were essentially correct in their discoveries, but to suggest the opposition of the church even in their days was united is simply historically inaccurate. Galileo always believed himself to be a true Catholic and many other Catholics, scientists included, supported him in his time. The opposition of the then Pope partly rested on Galileo’s style, where he appeared to ridicule the Pope in a particular publication, but also as much as anything it reflected the extreme defensiveness of the Vatican in the early 17th century in the face of Protestant advances. External pressure from whatever source can often make men more defensive rather than less so, and often then blind them to a truth that it would be far better if they faced honestly.

In Darwin’s day in this country Dean Stanley, the Dean of this Abbey Church at the time, was one of many Victorian Churchmen who held that there was no conflict between science and religion. If scientists discovered some truth like evolution, or, and as Stanley’s own friend Charles Lyell, the geologist had suggested, the world was far older than most religious statements at the time suggested, then science had to be respected and religion must adapt. The impression of universal opposition from Victorian churchmen to Darwin is quite incorrect historically, for while some vociferous clergy certainly did oppose Darwin’s theory, others even then were quite happy to adapt their understanding of the Bible to take account of such developments. It was interesting last year in connection with the celebration of 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth that in a debate in this Abbey, chaired by one of the presenters of the Today programme, she asked the fairly large audience in the nave how many of them considered themselves Christians and a very large number of those present raised their hands, and she then asked who opposed the idea of evolution and very, very few raised their hands. The vast majority of thinking Christians, at least in this country, have no problem with the idea of evolution. 

What though, perhaps in the long run, was more difficult for belief in God is the support that men like Isaac Newton offered for the notion. Newton always believed that what he was doing as a scientist did not oppose the idea of God but supported it, and he wrote to his friend the classicist, Richard Bentley, who was to become Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, ‘When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief in a Deity, and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.’ ‘So much for the good’ the believer might say, but Newton’s conception of God was a very scientific one; God was the ultimate designer of the universe, and Newton, and some other scientists of his time, largely reduced God to a scientific explanation. In the process, as Karen Armstrong has shown in her interesting book ‘The Case for God’ he almost removed any element of mystery about God. Newton wrote, rather irritably, ‘It is the temper of the hot and superstitious part of mankind in matters of religion ever to be fond of mysteries and for that reason to like best what they understand least. It was positively dangerous to describe God as a mystery,’ said Newton, because this ‘conduces the rejection of his existence. It is of concern to theologians that the conception [of God] be made as easy and as agreeable as possibly, so as not to be exposed to cavils and thereby called into question.’

Newton’s way of thinking contrasted with the much earlier view of men like St Thomas Aquinas, and many other medieval theologians, who were always stressing the element of mystery and saying that it was always very difficult to make any positive statements about God. St Thomas, and those like him, preferred what is often described as an apophatic approach to God, we cannot say what God is, we can only say what he is not; for them there always had to be an element of reverent humility when contemplating the mystery of God.

And that, I believe, is the critical element in any discussion about God and science today. Those scientists who reject the notion of God seem to have far too clear a picture of the God they reject, and I have a lot of sympathy for Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, the former Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster, who once asked a lecture audience in Westminster Cathedral ‘Have you ever met anyone who believes what Richard Dawkins doesn’t believe in? I usually find’ he went on to say ‘that the God that is being rejected by such people is a God I don’t believe in either. I simply don’t recognise my faith in what is presented by these critics as Christian faith.’

Well, Amen to that. I suspect the real difficulty for belief in God lies not in science, but in those scientists who think they know more about the notion of God than they do. Indeed it is possible to argue, as Karen Armstrong does, that what they create is no more than an idol, a human construction that by definition is always less than God.

Earlier in this series of addresses I said that personally I found the biologists’ approach to how the world is easier to visualise than that of the quantum physicists, whose pictures of black holes, string theory and multi-universes seems so unfathomable. I stand by that personal view, but I do recognise that the physicists are pointing to what is essentially mysterious and those physicists who believe in God, and there are many that do, and those who are agnostic about the matter point to that ultimate mystery. No less a person that Lord Rees, the President of the Royal Society and Astronomer Royal, in his book ‘Our Cosmic Habitat’ said that we should be sceptical of ‘any claim to have achieved more than a very incomplete and metaphorical insight into any profound aspect of our existence.’ I believe he is right, including about those churchmen who try to say too much about what God is. God cannot be neatly packaged, and God is not an object within the universe that may or may not exist, but he, or she, or it, is rather that mysterious otherness that seems to be at the heart of the universe, and, indeed, at the heart of each one of us in that equally mysterious thing that is a human being. Human beings, after all we are told in the Bible, are made in the image of God. If we acknowledge mysteriousness in both then that may be part of any route into beginning to explore God’s mystery.

So despite those debates in the past, when the scientists have often been right and some of the churchmen wrong, it would, I believe, be foolish to suggest that there is any real conflict between religion and science. Whatever scientists discover and which discovery is accepted by the scientific community, is part of truth and must always be respected. If Christianity has to adapt to such discoveries then so be it, it has done that before and it must do it again. Real, yet humble religion should never be in conflict with real, yet humble science. 

Yet, unlike Newton, I suspect science may not necessarily be the easiest route into understanding what religion is about. Science, after all, in the often said if slightly simplistic statement, is about attempting to understand how things are, Christianity is more concerned with about why things are, and what values and meanings we can find in this mysterious universe of which we are a part. There is certainly room for humility in facing those questions, as there is in the subject of next Sunday’s address, God and Suffering.

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